I went on a walk on Saturday. It was a walk I wish did not have to exist, but it does. It was wonderful and terrible and said untold amounts about the human spirit and ability to try and make something of the worst things that can happen to us. It was the 7th annual ‘Walk With An Angel’, organised by my friend Tony Harrison. It aims to raise awareness of young suicide and raise money for PAPYRUS – Prevention of Young Suicide.
Tony lost his only child Vicky to suicide on March 31st 2010.
For all the increased exposure and dialogue around mental health, depression, anxiety, bipolar ‘disorder’ and the rest, suicide remains the elephant in the mental health conversation. We seem to have reached a point of grudging acceptance around mental health experiences and hurt, a lot of stigma has been fought and beaten back, but suicide remains the darkest of taboos. I think this betrays not only the stigma around it, but also the cowardice of many in mental health activism circles. Whatever you believe about the causes of mental distress, if these things remains unexamined and kept secret and hidden away and denied and unaddressed – suicide will result. We seem to have reached a point where we can accept that people have depression, but not that it can kill you.
I often think that ‘Awareness Raising’ is shorthand for clickbait with no real purpose or end goal, but suicide is something where awareness raising is still very much needed. It is the leading killer of young people in the UK under the age of 35, it is one of the leading killers of men under the age of 45, every 40 seconds around the world, someone completes a suicide. Yet it is something we never hear talked about. And if we’re to make a dent in those statistics, it needs to be brought into the open and talked about without fear. Not just fear of the topic, but fear of saying the wrong thing and causing further harm. As Tony put it to me, why is it that if someone keels over with a suspected heart attack in a doctor’s surgery, that someone is likely to know enough CPR to increase their life chances, whereas someone who declares themselves suicidal in the same situation, is likely to be met with silence, disbelief and blank faces from people worried about making things worse. If you’re suicidal, the worst has already happened. If the person having the heart attack receives CPR but then still dies, we don’t criticise the person administering first aid. If someone speaks about suicidal thoughts and they still kill themselves, we then go into a fog of what went wrong and what could have been said – what was the right thing to say.
And this misses the point.
It needs looking at from a vastly wider perspective. I’ve written before about how suicide should be seen as someone jumping from a burning building. We can tinker around the edges of the issue of suicide, we can try to give mental health first aid so that people do not jump from that burning building – and of course there is a space for this. But we then have to put out the fire in that building. Suicide does come as a total shock, and does to the outsider come out of the blue. It did for Tony. As someone who’s attempted, I can tell you that from the inside, it’s a much longer process that’s often kept entirely secret. Sometimes there really are no warning signs. And it doesn’t come from nowhere. If we’re going to stamp out suicide, we need to learn to put out the fires before the whole building is ablaze. Tony and I have both been very frank about our experiences in the media, he as a bereaved parent, I as an attempt survivor. Whatever our views on whether suicide is entirely preventable, we both agree that we have to try, and we both feel that one way to prevent fires is to be open. In our own ways, we’re not at all backward in coming forward because if we can raise that awareness and make suicide less of a taboo then it creates a space and freedom for people to talk about it without fear. If there’s a space for it, it becomes more open and we can deal with the fire before it is out of control. Tony and I talked about this a lot on Saturday, and while we both said we were likely to keep banging this drum until our last breath, but we’d like to create an environment where there are lots of other drummers alongside us.
Tony is one of a small number of people bereaved by suicide that talks about it openly. That is not a criticism of those that don’t, and I’m not saying it’s something that should always happen – it’s an individual matter. It is a criticism of a culture that makes Tony unusual. It’s a criticism of a culture where I still get calls to talk about this, 11 years after my attempt – because there isn’t the acceptance of the thousands of other attemptors enough for some to come forward. We both talk about it because we care passionately about saving young lives, suicide is a profound thing that once you’ve been touched by it, it never leaves you. Part of us talks about it because we need to keep speaking in order to make sense of it for ourselves, to heal, to breathe and to keep ploughing forward. We’d give a lot for a society where it would cost a little less to do this.
If we can create a culture where suicide is not a taboo, not stigmatised and is discussed honestly, we can give a space for those going through the darkest of times, to be heard, safe, and hopefully to heal.
It’s a humbling experience as an attempt survivor to be with those bereaved by suicide. Not because it makes me feel guilty, I know that my pain was justified – and that’s true of anyone who attempts – but it brings home the sheer enormity of suicide, the absolutely profound nature of the thing. The permanent scars that a suicide leaves behind, it is an amazing thing to reflect on how many lives are still affected by Vicky’s passing 8 years on. When you’re suicidal you can’t see this, it’s chilling to see it in person. It’s something that in our own ways, Tony and I will always carry with us. I hope one day that it is a burden nobody else has to shoulder.I don’t know if all suicides are preventable. But I am not prepared to live in a world where I’m not giving as much as I can to try to make it disappear.